Commons faces legal threat after debate access anger


A disabled activist is threatening to take legal action against the House of Commons after he and other wheelchair-users were refused entry to a debate on accessible transport.

Adam Lotun was one of a handful of wheelchair-users who were told the committee room in Westminster Hall – the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster – was already “full”.

They were later told by other campaigners that there were a number of vacant seats, but Commons staff had refused to remove chairs to make space for more wheelchair-users because it might cause disruption to a later debate.

Instead of being able to watch the debate on 12 October in person, the group of wheelchair-users were taken to a crowded passageway outside the Commons cafe, where they were told they could watch it on a television screen.

But because the area was so busy and noisy, there was no induction loop and the pictures were not subtitled, Lotun was unable to follow the debate.

He has now lodged a complaint with House of Commons authorities, and is considering legal action for disability discrimination under the new Equality Act.

Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP who secured the debate, told MPs that some wheelchair-users were not able to fit into the room because “the majority of chairs were not removed because it may cause disruption to a later debate”, and that the Commons had fallen “far, far short” of the standards that disabled people should expect when they visit parliament.

The Commons speaker, John Bercow, said he attached the “greatest possible importance to all of our proceedings being accessible to everyone” and ordered an investigation by the Commons head of diversity.

That investigation has now concluded that “while errors were made, and should never have happened, these were not made maliciously” and were “the result of tensions created by trying to meet the needs of visitors and guests within the constraints of an historic building”.

A spokesman for the speaker later appeared to dispute the account given by Nandy in the Commons chamber, and said there were just two vacant seats during the debate and that Commons staff “decided that, because of their location in the middle of seating rows, to fill them would have disrupted the wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments who had already been admitted”.

He added later: “We are not disputing what Lisa Nandy said.”

But he was unable to clarify exactly what happened before the debate.

He said that, as a result of the incident, “we are looking at how debates are set up and the appropriateness of location”.

He said the incident had also caused “greater priority” to be given to improving training for frontline staff and the provision of information on access to the parliamentary estate.

An updated diversity and inclusion strategy will be published shortly.

3 November 2011


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